Are you not entertained?" goes the rallying cry from Ridley Scott's Oscar-winning Gladiator. The Repertory Theatre Company's rendition of Annie Get Your Gun at the Fine Arts Center operates on this premise, bludgeoning us with colorful costumes, song and dance, and lung-busting yee-hah solos. You damn well better be entertained, it seems to say.
Annie, a chronicle of the real-life romance between sharpshooter Annie Oakley (Susan Dawn Carson) and star Frank Butler (Matt Cucullu), emerged in 1946 featuring songs by Irving Berlin. Although many are among the best in Berlin's career, including the classic "No Business Like Show Business," and "Doin' What Comes Naturally," the text itself has dated tremendously since the 1940s.
To 21st-century sensibilities, Chief Sitting Bull (Robert Tiffany, wonderful in the Tri-Lakes' Zoo Story) comes across like a Looney Toons Indian -- decked out in tribal feathers, greeting everyone with "How" and saying things like, "Annie win match, lose friend. Annie lose match, win friend." Which brings us to the story's sexism: The skilled Annie must feign incompetence to win Frank's hand -- Frank being the type of guy who won't lose to a woman. He sings, "The girl that I marry will have to be as soft and pink as a nursery." Why then does he fall in love with an illiterate gun-toting hillbilly?
Forgivably, director Kevin Shea apologizes in the program: Cuts were made to erase some of the more callous material, and Carson strives to portray the strength at the core of her character. Yet despite the disclaimers, the innocent insensitivities of yesteryear did distract me. I know what some will say: "Dude -- just have fun with it." Yeah, I tried. Still, when Sitting Bull describes the U.S. president as "the Great White Father," I can't help but cringe.
Culture wars aside, this is the FAC's production -- that means professional choreography, seamless set changes and beautiful design. Somebody put hours into the huge Annie and Frank flags that hang over the stage; they look great. A scene on the deck of a cattle boat is especially amazing, the nautical set pieces conjuring up a nighttime port perfectly. And, of course, there are the songs: I dare you to sit through the sparring of "Anything You Can Do" without grinning like an idiot.
Kudos also to Carson's energetic turn as Oakley -- we're lucky to have this classy Broadway expatriate in our midst. She takes a cue from Reba McEntire, who starred in a recent version, by emphasizing Annie's country sass. By Act Two, she has metamorphosed from a nave woman falling all over Frank to a wiser, spunky professional who still falls all over Frank, but at least isn't afraid to argue with him. The spunky Annie is much more fun and sings show-stopping numbers, like the rollicking "I Got the Sun in the Morning," in which debutantes whirl around, supporting Carson's booming pipes.
Cucullu turns out a solid performance, but in the "likable rogue" equation, I detected mostly rogue, and didn't warm up to him until Act Two, when he gets to say mind-boggling Dadaist lines like, "I'm all goosefleshy, like one o' them vampires" and displays self-deprecating humor in "Anything You Can Do."
As I've hinted, Annie didn't entirely gel until after intermission, when I began to feel that I was somewhere besides a Disneyland Wild West Show full of dancing mannequins and cute-kid interludes. In that sense, and judging from the positive response of Friday's audience, this is a good, middlebrow family show -- for the type of family who likes Reba McEntire. Then just remember to give your kids a history lesson.